Category Archives: apb

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reload

I did have a soft spot for APB and was keeping half an eye on the APB Reloaded relaunch, but it was only seeing this video in Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Sunday Papers that really inspired me to go and grab the open beta. There’s a transfer process for getting your old characters from the original launch (only the customisation, not the progress) that seemed to work fine, and the game seems pretty much as I remember, running, jumping, standing still, all that stuff.

Mind you, when I clicked on a window in the launcher promising a method to “earn free G1 credits”, I did have to wonder slightly at exactly what target audience they’re going for now…

No treaty is ever an impediment to a cheat

Towards the End of Days in APB, cheating was rife. Or possibly not. It can be hard to tell the difference between a freakishly good opponent and someone using third-party cheating software, especially in a game like APB with significant differences in character capability due to upgrades and a lack of location-based damage (if every shot hits you precisely two inches below the left nipple, that’s probably a reasonable indicator of someone cheating. Either that or they’re a dead-shot nipple fetishist who needs to slightly adjust their rifle sights.)

With most players being suspicious at the best of times (irregular shooter terminology: I possess great skill; you got a lucky shot; he/she/it is obviously cheating), it doesn’t take much to cause widespread paranoia. In the appropriately-named Operation Greif, German soldiers in American uniforms were sent behind enemy lines; the combat units themselves had limited success but the psychological effect was great, rumours and suspicion spreading throughout Allied troops. Many posters on the APB forums were adamant that everybody (except them) was cheating, posting links to sites proudly offering “undetectable” cheat software, and RealTime Worlds weren’t saying very much. The latest APB Reloaded blog sheds some light on why…

I imagine it’s a familiar enough story to anyone who’s been involved in large software projects; the PunkBuster anti-cheat software was integrated then turned off, deemed as non-essential, until near the end of the closed beta. When turned on it caused major problems, so faced with a choice of launching with major lag issues and players getting randomly kicked, or launching without PunkBuster, they went with the lesser of two evils. Obviously that’s not something you’re going to officially broadcast, but when the people using cheat software don’t get caught word spreads around the murky corners of the ‘net. You have to feel especially sorry for the author of the blog, Aphadon, who did get PunkBuster working with acceptable performance after launch, only for RealTime Worlds well-documented financial issues to mean they couldn’t get afford to get the details of the cheaters it detected. As circles go, it was pretty vicious.

News that the relaunched APB Reloaded will have PunkBuster, and a few other surprises, fully enabled is most welcome, even if my Super Cynical Powers instil a nagging doubt that it’s precisely the message you’d want to loudly broadcast if you didn’t have anti-cheat measures at all (“we’re so secure you shouldn’t even bother trying!”) That said, I think the APB folk would think that the cheat software authors would think they’d think that, and so wouldn’t say it unless it was true. Unless they think I’d think they’d think that…

Alas, poor APB!

I knew it, Horatio: a game of infinite customisation, of most excellent fancy: it hath borne me in its car a thousand times (and run me over in it now and again); and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those blaggers that I have shot I know not how oft. Where be your N-TECs now? Your Agrotech DMR-SDs? Your rington’d songs? Your flashes of inspiration, that were wont to set the Mumble on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my administrator’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.

“Press F to apply for Jobseekers Allowance.”– Ben Hall (Development QA)

APB Post-mortem Breakdown: Alas, Poor Business

APB has continued improving, with patches fixing various bugs, toning down the automatic weapons that were beginning to dominate play a bit, and most recently overhauling the matchmaking system as outlined a few weeks back. Instead of teams and players being offered a mission which they could accept or reject (which led to cherry-picking, mismatched missions when only some potential participants joined and other issues), you now start out in a “Not Ready” state during which you can check mail, stock up on ammo etc., then you hit “O” to flip to being “Ready”, and when everyone on the team is Ready the system automatically puts you into missions. Judging by a couple of sessions since the change this has worked to make things generally more balanced, I haven’t been coming up against ultra-upgraded opponents nearly so often, and where they are present it tries to even things out with numbers. It’s working out well for me, dropping in once or twice a week for a bit of a blast.

Course the actual game changes have been slightly overshadowed by the problems at developer Realtime Worlds resulting in the company entering administration. Despite comment threads full of well reasoned and highly knowledgeable analysis of the problems with APB such as “lol it su><ed”, there might be room for a bit more consideration of what went wrong.

In August 2009 there was a line in the FAQ: “The actual price for the game itself is still under discussion but we’ll keep you up to date. We can confirm that APB will not require a monthly subscription”. My expectation was a Guild Wars-esque model, free play after buying the box, perhaps with expansions or DLC later, probably an item shop of some sort. Good move; many gamers are opposed to any sort of subscription for a game, and it fitted in with APB aiming to be a more fast-paced action game of shorter play sessions rather than extended grinds.

April 2010, full details of the payment model were published with a bombshell: an hourly fee. If subscriptions are off-putting to some gamers, hourly fees are about as popular as Conquistador Coffee’s ill-fated introductory offer of a free dead dog with every jar. Instant turn-off for a lot of people. If you thought you’d be playing a lot there was a subscription option as well, so at least players wouldn’t be running up insane bills if they got hooked, but after the “no subscription required” line it was a let-down. It was a bit like the FAQ had said “We can confirm that APB will not require you to be hit over the head with a cricket bat to play”, and that was later qualified with “… you can opt to be poked in the eye with a stick instead”.

It wasn’t quite as simple as just “give money for game time”; all transactions were done with “RTW points”, so you bought RTW points for cash (200 points for £3.99), then bought game time with RTW points (30 days unlimited play for 400 points, or 20 hours for 280 points). Hardly unusual these days, what with Microsoft Points, Bioware Points, Cryptic Points, Turbine Points, Sony’s Station Cash, Nectar Points, Luncheon Vouchers, Green Shield Stamps etc. In addition, items within the game could be sold by players for either APB$ (the in-game currency earned by completing missions) or these RTW points; the intent was to drive the player market using the customisation tools and offer talented designers the possibility of playing for free. Design an amazing T-shirt, list it for sale for 40 RTW points, and if you sell ten of ’em that’s a month of unlimited play for you. The full announcement also went into detail about how many RTW points it would cost to manufacture items to sell to other players, which, not having first hand experience of the system in beta at that point, all seemed terribly confusing (10 RTW points for a vehicle, 5 RTW points for major clothing, 2 RTW points for minor clothing, yada yada).

So, £35 RRP for the box, which comes with 50 hours of game time and 100 RTW points, then you buy RTW points for cash and spend RTW points on either hourly or unlimited game time. Oh, though game time only counts in the action districts, you can spend as long as you like in the social districts, where you can also design items, which cost RTW points to make, to sell for RTW points, which you can buy game time with. Or you can sell your stuff for APB$, then sell APB$ for RTW points. Or buy RTW points for real cash then buy APB$ with RTW points to buy other stuff. Clear?

OK, I’m deliberately obfuscating there, the basics aren’t that tricky: box comes with 50 hours, once you’ve played for those then either buy more, or unlimited time for a month if you’re going to be playing more than 30 hours. The market in RTW points/APB$ isn’t terribly dissimilar to something like PLEX in EVE, and gives a nice incentive for people to produce and sell desirable items. It’s more off-putting than the “buy game, play game” model of many competing online shooters, though. It didn’t take long for them to backtrack on the RTW point cost for manufacturing items, which simplified things somewhat, but wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of a carefully thought out cost model. UnSubject of Vicarious Existence has a remarkably prescient piece from a month before launch on the pricing.

As it turns out, the in-game marketplace is another example of the two halves of the game, the freedom of customisation and the fast-paced PvP, not complementing each other very well. To quote, err, me: “On the Venn diagram of “people who like small group deathmatch shooters” and “people who like composing theme tunes and spending ages making sure their shirt looks right”, APB is great for those in the intersection between the sets, but my suspicion is that’s not a very large segment”. If your main interest is in designing clothes and cars, you do that in the social district which doesn’t count towards your game time anyway, undermining the “play for free” incentive of earning RTW points. To unlock additional clothing and car options (which can then be customised, manufactured and put up for sale if you like) you need earn levels, ranks and rating in the (twitchy, shooty) PvP.

Another problem undermining the creative side of customisation as a viable play style in itself is that the marketplace lists weapons, upgrades, vehicles, clothing, themes and songs. Some of these have an actual, material affect on gameplay (more powerful weapons, faster vehicles), some are purely cosmetic and make no difference at all (clothes). Take a wild stab in the dark at which are more desirable, in a game where the only non-combat options are to hang around a ‘social’ area that largely consists of people standing at auction/design terminals… To round out the issues, the reason given for charging for manufacturing items was: “We believe the quality of the experience would suffer if the Marketplace were inundated with junk. The intent of the nominal Manufacturing charge is to prevent high volume of low quality items from crowding the Marketplace listings.” With the manufacturing charge withdrawn, guess what? If you said “a high volume of low quality items crowd the Marketplace listings”, award yourself five points. If you said “Henri Bergson”, you’re in the wrong quiz.

Actually I’m being a bit unkind again, it’s not that the marketplace is *completely* swamped with junk, it’s just the usual problem of user-generated content, trying to find the decent stuff. The only initial information you have is a very brief text description and a price, so shopping for a new theme tune (a 5 second snippet that plays to opponents when you kill them) you’re presented with a big ol’ list mostly of TV and game themes, popular chart hits and random strange gibberish that other players have come up with, and if you see something that appeals you hit “listen” to determine if it’s a godawful rendition that would shame a 1994-era mobile phone ringtone produced by a marmot tap-dancing on the keypad, or a half-decent effort. Clothes are similar, just the name to start with, if you want to see how an item looks you have to hit a preview option that takes a little while to stream down all the appropriate information, then shows you the item in a little preview window. For me at least it’s all moot anyway, even if I had the patience to work through a load of designs I’m perfectly happy with the clothing options I’ve unlocked for myself and the minor tinkering I’ve done with them, and I’m far more interested in saving up for fast guns and heavy-calibre cars.

Despite my utter lack of creative talent, I’m also making a decent amount of money and RTW points from the marketplace myself, simply from manufacturing basic versions of a couple of the more unusual clothing pieces I’ve unlocked and sticking ’em up for auction cheap. Since launch I’ve earned around 600 RTW points, not enough to retire to the Caribbean just yet, but it’ll cover another 40 hours of game time, if needed. From my perspective the payment model works out absolutely fine, but it does mean I haven’t given Realtime Worlds any money after the initial box purchase, not so great for them.

Talking of money, though, some frankly extraordinary figures emerged as a buyer was sought for APB. Direct quote from the press release:

“The figures reveal 130,000 registered players, with the average player playing for 4 hours each day, APB’s unique business model sees paying players averaging $28 per month, a combination of game time and user to user marketplace trading.”

Now we all know the fun and games of MMOG press release terminology, of “accounts” and “characters” and “registered players” and “active players” and “average revenue per user” and “average revenue per *paying* user” and “number of people who might have looked at our website or maybe mentioned to a friend via instant messaging our game or at least a phrase that sounds a bit like our game”, and that without a full and detailed breakdown of precisely how every word of a press release is defined they’re basically just “Look! Numbers! BIG numbers! Big numbers good!” Even by those standards, I’m struggling to work out what’s going on.

130,000 registered players I’m presuming to mean 130,000 box/download sales (or at least 130,000 people who bought the box and then created a game account). I don’t think there’s another way of being a “registered player”, no free trial or anything like that. All fine so far.

“Average player playing for 4 hours each day”? Seriously? *Average*? Bearing in mind the dangers of anecdotal evidence and everything, since launch (about two months) I’ve spent 30 ‘action’ hours in the game, maybe another 10-20 hours footling about in the marketplace and customisation. I saw a comment somewhere from someone who said they’d spent about 180 hours in the game, and thought that was pretty hardcore, but (over two months) that’s still only an average of three hours a day. I know several people who bought the game and have found it’s not really their cup of tea, barely scratching the included time; are there really enough people spending ten plus hours every single day in the game to make the average up? Even if there are, to be honest I’m not sure that’s really a stat you want to be trumpeting; for someone looking to buy the studio it might say “our game is so brilliant people are really hooked on it!”, for a potential new player to a PvP game it says “hey, here’s a basic pop-gun, now why don’t you go and try and shoot that bloke over there who’s spent the last 240 hours honing his skills to being a deadly killing machine, and significantly upgrading his weapon, durability and vehicle in the meantime to be much better than yours!”

There is one game element that might make a bit more sense of it: the Fasionista and Tuner unlocks. These are in-game achievements for spending time in the clothing and car designers respectively, and there are 15 levels for each. The first few levels are awarded every five or ten minutes, building up until each additional level takes an hour; earlier in beta time alone would unlock the first nine levels, then for 10 to 15 you also had to manufacture a certain number of items, so obviously another incentive to people to spend time designing great clothes, then manufacturing them to sell on the marketplace. In reality ten hours AFK, then you made about 600 socks and either destroyed them or listed them on the marketplace, making beta a very exciting place for people keen on picking up sock bargains. Before release the manufacturing requirement was dropped, so it was just a case of spending time in the editor, *even if you were AFK*. Yes, after about 15 minutes the system would flag you as AFK, but still you’d be there in the editor, and still the time would count towards Fashionista/Tuner. Why bother? Well firstly each rank unlocks another piece of clothing or two, so you can kit your character out in that pair of sunglasses you’ve been after, secondly at launch each rank also awarded you in-game currency, the amount increasing each rank, winding up with a pretty substantial amount (maybe APB$ 10,000 for rank 15, I don’t remember precisely). So to make money fast you just created a character, logged in, opened the clothing/car editor and went AFK, until they removed the financial rewards after a couple of weeks. 4 hours per day per player still seems pretty high, but not quite so gobsmackingly insane if a good chunk of it was spent AFK.

Finally, “APB’s unique business model sees paying players averaging $28 per month, a combination of game time and user to user marketplace trading”. Seems a bit strange again. “Paying player” is more usually associated with free-to-play games, denoting the (usually small) percentage of players who actually pay for e.g. cash shop items compared to the larger general user base. If by “paying player” they mean someone who’s bought RTW points on top of the box cost, it looks like a ludicrously high number; one month of unlimited game time is $10, so the *average* paying player is not only covering that, but *another* $18 on RTW points for marketplace trading? I honestly can’t believe that; you can’t buy yourself a massive advantage, as items have rating restrictions (there’s an excellent guide to the various “levels” in APB at Combat Archaeology) and you only unlock character upgrade slots as you go, so a brand new player can’t equip an amazing weapon or car. Better players receive rewards just for playing, and enough of these trickle down through the auction house to make very affordable upgrades for everyone, so there really isn’t much of an advantage to be gained by splashing cash around. Maybe you can give yourself a few percentage points advantage over somebody of a similar rating, say I can only afford a 3% damage boost for my gun and they could buy an 8% upgrade, but I’m really not sure that’s an attractive enough proposition to get people spending an average of $18 a month on. Most curious. As far as I’m aware, though, all APB players at least bought the box/downloaded the game, with a $50 RRP, so if that’s being divided over the two months since launch it could account for (up to) $25 of the $28.

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional

APB has two main features. Firstly customisation; of your character, the way they look, they way they dress, the car they drive, their theme tune. Secondly fast-paced cops n’ robbers driving and shooting action in third-person, haring around after escaping criminals, shootouts over key objectives, a bit like a bunch of dynamic mini Counterstrike matches happening on the same map. Customisation was a big focus of pre-launch publicity like the 2008 E3 presentation, and has generally lived up to the hype; players have come up with some impressive efforts themselves including a Star Trek Squad and a Metropolitan Police clan. The action side of things wasn’t so well received, so it’s not a huge surprise that the developers have announced they’re looking at improving driving, combat and matchmaking.

One of APB’s problems is that the two halves don’t always complement each other. A good example of the inherent conflict is location-based damage; it’s pretty much taken for granted in modern shooters that a headshot will do more damage. Then again in most shooters the player models are the same size, but APB gives you sliders to adjust height and weight, so if the hit box was exactly mapped to your character there’d be a competitive advantage in making the character as small as possible and top clans would be exclusively populated by emaciated midgets. And in the game, ah! (No, not ‘ah’). Instead all APB characters have the same hit box, so a ‘head’ shot would be anywhere from the top of a chest to thin air, depending on the actual character size. There have been some interesting suggestions, such as having the hit box the same size as the character, but making shorter characters move more slowly so there would be drawbacks as well as advantages, but that would just give another avenue of min-maxing, and generally be opposed to the central idea of giving players maximum creative freedom in how they look.

If the customisation was lacklustre but the action gameplay worked really well APB might be able to find a more comfortable niche, though it would be in more direct competition with any number of online shooters without monthly or per-hour costs. As it is, after perfecting your hairstyle, outfit and car paint job, you’ve got one thing to do: go head-to-head against other players. On the Venn diagram of “people who like small group deathmatch shooters” and “people who like composing theme tunes and spending ages making sure their shirt looks right”, APB is great for those in the intersection between the sets, but my suspicion is that’s not a very large segment and many people attracted by the freedom in the character creation would prefer some slightly more relaxed gameplay options. There is the Social district, though that’s something of a misnomer as most people there are clustered around auction or design terminals using the full screen editing options, and apart from the terminals it’s a useful space if you want an in-game guild meeting or something, but there’s nothing to actually do there.

Out on patrol in the action district you hit the problems every PvP game has. Some players want a balanced fight, some just want to win; the latter try to skew things in their favour as much as they can, especially in a persistent game in which unlocks and upgrades provide an incentive to keep playing. With a large enough pool of players and a robust matchmaking system those looking for a balanced fight should be able to find one, but RTW have acknowledged that things aren’t really working out as they hoped in that area. I’m increasingly finding as I potter about the place that more and more opponents have triple character and weapon upgrades, and though an individual 5% boost here and there doesn’t make a vast amount of difference in the grand scheme of things compared to player skill, if they’re a much better player to start out with my chances are somewhere between slim and none, and the upgrades mean slim gets taken out by a rocket launcher before the mission starts. I’m not sure if it’s the cherry picking and other matchmaking problems described by the devs, a lot of really good players on the criminal side, or just my bad luck with district selection, but when you keep coming up against opponents with a 15% health boost who take less damage from each shot things shift from “generally putting up a decent fight and winning a few missions” to “standing less chance than the peace-loving pygmies of the Upper Volta charging machine guns at Mboto Gorge armed only with fruit”. Still, when the matchmaking system does produce fairer fights it’s still fun, so fingers crossed their overhaul does the trick.

It might be that an improvement in the action side of the game is enough to keep APB compelling, but given more time or perhaps focus in development I wonder if it could have taken a different path. I blogged about Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row 2 a while back, concluding that one of the main strengths of GTAIV is its atmosphere, setting and attention to detail, whereas SR2 offers comic-book excesses and a wide variety of non-stop action, and I think either could have translated to an MMO.

The Saints Row 2 option of crazy blockbuster action would be, conceptually, pretty straightforward: throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It wouldn’t be so worried about a meaningful game world as setting players loose in a metaphorical theme park; hell, let the players loose in an actual theme park, gunfights on a roller-coaster and candy floss everywhere… Take a leaf from some SR2 activities like races on flaming quad bikes causing explosions around the place, or making players temporarily invulnerable to be hit by as many cars as possible as an insurance scam (that would work particularly well if happening at the same time as other players chasing each other on assassination missions or just in races). Add hot dog costumes and gimp masks to the clothing options, ramp everything up to 11.

A more Grand Theft Auto IV path would be quite the opposite; try and give the world more coherence and reality. The cities of GTA aren’t exactly *the* real world (police generally don’t tend to forget you’re a wanted felon if you hide around a corner for 30 seconds), but they’re *a* real world with people going about their business, news and adverts on the radio, things happening in the city. It’s difficult to take that living city into an MMO; throw in 100 maniacs with assault weapons and it’s not really so coherent and believable, the more real people you add, the less real it is. APB has an interesting enough back story, but it reads like it was dashed off as a quick excuse for criminals to be fighting a bunch of mercenary-like cops, it’s hardly reflected in the game itself when you drop into a district of this supposedly crime-ravaged anarchic lawless city. Have the population barricaded themselves in their homes, or buggered off to the country where there’s significantly less chance of being mown down in a random firefight? No, everyone is wandering about doing a bit of shopping, casually strolling across the road demonstrating a lack of awareness of the Green Cross Code that would be dangerous in a normal city let alone one where high speed pursuit is the hobby of choice, and slowly driving expensive sports cars around that might as well have “STEAL (or commandeer) ME!” emblazoned on the roof. Oh, and there’s the social district, where criminals and enforcers “decided not to fight”. As criminals and enforcers so often do.

It might go slightly against the real-world cops n’ robbers grain, but I think the only way you could really pull off an immersive city setting would be to make it near-future, after some not-apocalyptic-but-quite-major event, something like a cross between Mad Max (the first one) and Brian Wood’s DMZ comic series. Same clothes, cars and guns, but a more dishevelled city; maybe even expand things in a slightly EVE-like way with high-security areas patrolled by powerful (but not omniscient) NPCs giving way to more anarchic zones.

KiaSA Top Tips for APB

For new players to All Points Bulletin, a quick guide from pre-launch:

  • Voice is broadcast by default; either go into the VoIP section of the Audio options to change it to push to talk, or if you’re wearing a headset be vewy, vewy quiet when sneaking up on wabbits (and enemy players) or they’ll hear you.  Or take advantage, by saying very loudly “I’M JUST GOING TO GO UP THESE STAIRS HERE AT THE FRONT OF THE BUILDING”, then sneak off up a ladder round the back.
  • You show up as a red triangle on enemy radar (and vice versa) when either sprinting or in a vehicle.
  • APB is very much like making love to a beautiful woman (© Swiss Toni), it’s better in a group. Pull up the group window (“U” by default) to find one (a group, that is; beautiful women are currently unavailable via in-game mechanisms).
  • When riding as a passenger in a car, press forward or back (“W/”S”) to lean out of the window and shoot at stuff. Don’t press “F”, unless you want to get out.
  • If there are four of you in a car, the two on the passenger side need to be very careful firing directly ahead or behind, or there will very soon be three in the car. If someone leaning out of the opposite side of the car happens to shoot you, they probably meant it.
  • To add your own music to the game, pull up the music player (default “P”), select “Import”, and navigate to the folder containing the MP3s. You can also toggle between having your music playing all the time, or just in cars.
  • Setting up a playlist containing only the theme from The Professionals to play whenever you get into a car instantly makes the game 42.7% more awesome
  • Pick a gun to suit your style; out of the tutorial you can buy the OCA-EW submachine gun for close-in work, or the Obeya rifle if you prefer longer range shots.  (Speak to a contact to buy weapons, vehicles and upgrades.)  Alternatively, choose the one that best matches your shoes.
  • If an enemy group are holed up around an objective, charging directly towards their waiting guns generally doesn’t work as well as taking a bit of time to scope the area and look for unexpected approaches or overlooking sniper positions. If your clan is closely modelled on the Crimean War era Light Brigade, though, go for it, it’ll make a great poem.

All Paths Blocked.

DJ: “You’re listening to All Points Bulletin on 107.5 San Paro FM, headshotting you with explosive tunes twenty four seven! Traffic and Travel now, and we’ve got large queues backed-up on the I3, I7 and I8a. The I8b, I9 interchange, I12, and I14. The I15… pretty much all of the city really. Over to Tom in our Eye in the Sky for more details.”

Tom: “Thanks Bob. Well, since you started the report there have also been incidents on the I2 and I4 leaving them partially blocked, and at this very moment I can see four armed men have jumped out of a car on the I6, abandoning the car in the middle of the road and backing up the traffic there… and it’s just been rammed by a second car, which is now being machine gunned, and a security van has ploughed into the middle of everything, and someone’s got a rocket-propelled grenade laun-ARGHH, EVASIVE ACTION FRANK!”

DJ: “I’m sorry, we seem to have lost Tom there, some technical gremlins by the sound of it; hopefully we’ll be able to get back to him before too long. In the meantime, news just in: I’m getting reports of a helicopter crash on the I13 which is causing serious tailbacks. So that’s accidents on the I2, I3… on the I1, I2, I3, I4… Actually, here are the roads where there aren’t major incidents: I16. I’m… I’m just getting a report in that there’s a two car pile-up on the I16… a three car pile-up… three cars, and an ambulance trying to get to the wounded… nine cars, several ambulances, a fire truck, and an ice cream van being used as a mobile gun platform.

So that’s your traffic and travel news for this quiet balmy Monday lunchtime, we’ll have more travel in your area during the busy rush hour. Whoooof, looks like it’ll be slow going out there for a while folks, so here’s a little something to cheer-up all those of you trying to make your way across the city right now.”

♫ I like driving in my car, it don’t look much but I’ve been far ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, even with a flat tyre ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, it’s not quite a Jaguar ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, I’m satisfied I’ve got this far ♫

Assorted Ponderings on Beta

APB has launched its “Key to the City” open beta/demo/stress test event-type thing with codes available all over the place (including Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Eurogamer) for anyone who wants a bit of a peak. There’s a top-notch write up over at Combat Archaeology (with added Gary Numan lyrics), and I’ve been pottering about a bit as well.

The character creator, as unleashed almost exactly two years ago, is indeed amazing, taking slider-sliding to the next level. Crucially it’s not just for a face that you’ll hardly be looking at for the rest of the game (though you can tweak Cheekbone Depth, Nostril Flare and Earlobe Protrusion to your heart’s content) but overall height, weight and musculature as well. I believe the actual hit-box for all players is the same, though, to discourage the emaciated midget look being de rigeur. There are plenty of options for hair styles and colour, face and body hair, scars and the like; certain hairstyles can even manipulated with sliders to adjust lengths and angles of different elements, so if you’ve always wanted an asymmetric mullet this is your chance. And in the game, ah.

Launching into the actual game, the tutorial isn’t a non-stop rollercoaster of excitement, but serves to introduce the game mechanics efficiently enough without the risk of being gunned down. Said mechanics broadly consist of pressing “F”, a multi-purpose key for performing various mission tasks (spraying over graffiti, planting bugs to collect evidence), interacting with scenery (scrambling over fences, climbing ladders, opening doors with a highly satisfying boot regardless of whether you’re raiding a suspect property or ambling down to the police station car park) and getting hold of transport (by showing your badge and commandeering the vehicle if you’re an enforcer, or the more traditional punch to the face and car-jacking for criminals). It generally works well enough, though navigation can sometimes be a little annoying (only certain doors can be opened and designated fences vaulted, sometimes you’ll think you’re on the right track for an objective but end up underneath or just outside it requiring a frustrating search for the door/ladder/stairs you missed).

After the tutorial you have a choice of two “Action” districts to jump in and start gunning down criminals/enforcers (delete as appropriate, though with friendly fire both are an option), or the “Social” district where criminals and enforcers, much like ebony and ivory on my piano keyboard, live side-by-side in perfect harmony. The Social district is also where you can tinker about, terminals allowing access to the auction house and customisation options for your character’s body, clothes, car, symbols, theme tune and heated towel rail. The clothing terminal is a good starting point, after agonising over Ear Hair Density during character creation everyone is dumped into the game itself in the same training shirt and track pants. Hitting the clothing options you find a couple more basic items in your wardrobe, the option to purchase a few pieces, and a big ol’ list of locked items. Clothes unlocks are obviously a significant element of progression in the game so it’s not too surprising that you start with a limited selection, and you can still customise colours and overlay symbols and designs on a basic t-shirt for some interesting looks. Initial car customisation is similar, you’re stuck with the awesome crimefighting power of a two-door Ford Fiesta van type thing, but at least you can spray it in lurid colours and add logos of your choice. Spending time in the clothing and car designers earns rewards in the form of “Fashionista” and “Tuner” levels, granting a bit of cash and some item unlocks; mere time alone (for the first nine levels) seems a bit of an odd decision, and an incentive to leave the game open in a window, clicking now and again to avoid being flagged AFK, while, say, composing a blog post in another window… hey, Tuner Level 4!

Decked out in suitable gear it’s time to head over to an Action district for some, er, Action. Play is generally mission-driven; you can’t directly harm most other players right off the bat. This does take away slightly from the “world” feeling, but on the plus side it means you can survive for more than nine seconds; there is friendly fire, so the spawn points would become carnage, especially if you’ve just been playing a game where “Ctrl” is the crouch key and jump straight in to APB where it throws a grenade… If you did make it out of the front door of the police station, it would only be to get mown down by a random car, so a total free-for-all would be pretty awful. Instead you potter around, and if nothing else happening in the area a mission offer pops up asking you to do something suitably Enforcer-y like collecting evidence, spraying over graffiti or filling out lengthy paperwork to support “stop and search” operations. This is about as far as PvE goes in the game, and mostly involves going to a waypoint and pressing the magic “F” key, not too tricky. The interesting part comes as the match-making system kicks in, looks for a suitable band of criminals out there, and offers them the chance to try and stop you; if they accept, the sirens kick in, and it’s game on. It also works the other way around, with criminals getting missions to go and set fire to cars, nick stuff and drive without due care and attention, and suitable free Enforcer groups get the chance to go against them with a woop woop (that being the sound of da police). Criminals have a few general options without being on a specific mission to go ramraiding or otherwise causing mayhem around the city, and if Enforcers see them in the act they can report the crimes, kicking off ad-hoc missions; if you acquire enough of a reputation from performing well you can also attract a zone-wide bounty allowing anyone to engage you.

One thing I learned fairly quickly was that I’m not really cut out for solo play; one-on-one confrontations are mostly spent either trying to defend an objective, which will almost always have several approach paths, or take an objective knowing there’s an enemy player lurking somewhere in the vicinity. All very tense, sometimes an evenly matched confrontation, but more often a mismatch (usually ending up with me dead a lot, but just sometimes I came up against someone with even less clue than me for a quick victory). Slightly better when solo was answering backup calls; if the match-making system determines forces aren’t quite even on a mission, the weaker side gets to call for back-up, and the message goes out to suitable players or groups to join in. Best of all, though, was hooking up with a group of four, even random strangers, and going on missions mob handed. That way it’s less about stealth and stalking and more about one of you driving a car with the other three hanging out the windows blazing away at anything a bit hostile looking, and if you die there’s a decent opportunity of catching the enemy unaware as you head back from the spawn point. Missions are quick enough that you get a fair bit of variety, and if you meet a highly organised and skilled bunch in one it’s only five or ten minutes of pain before getting to move on.

All in all I’ve been rather enjoying it; it straddles a slightly awkward divide, being slightly wider in scope than most online shooters, but without being a deep persistent world, so I’m not sure how much longevity it will have, but for a few hours here and there of automotive mayhem it could be just the job.

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

I wonder whether PvP MMO games such as All Points Bulletin should adopt a gear system which is inverted to the norm for most MMOs, such that players start with powerful gear that degrades to a constant level, rather than having to work up to the level of gear of the early adopters by struggling against those same – now seemingly overpowered – early adopters.

It’s like have an Olympic race where you’ve trained yourself to be an excellent athlete at the four hundred metres event with times towards the low end of the forty second bracket, but when you turn up you find out that all the runners who competed last year now have bionic leg replacements that mean they can run it in the low thirties. The problem is that the only way to get bionic legs yourself is to win against the guys who already have them. So your competitive goal actually turns in to trying to convince one of the bionic competitors to give you a piggy back, and the whole race turns into some sort of perverse bionic Grand National with unenhanced jockeys riding around on the backs of whichever bionic big boy they can convince to carry them.

I just don’t think PvP is compatible with the traditional gear system of MMOs because game knowledge and skill is already a massive obstacle for the new player to overcome, layering on an additional artificial ‘gear gap’ makes for a game that will be inordinately intimidating to all but the most dedicated of masochists. This is why I think Counter Strike was (perhaps still is) the darling of the FPS online world for so long, because it used gear to allow players to specialise into different roles based on their personal preference or what the map demanded, without creating any sort of gap between the new and veteran players; yet if you visit a Counter Strike server as a new player you will know who the veteran players are quickly enough, because they will be the ones who understand the map and use its terrain to their advantage, but if you play carefully and craftily, you have every much a chance at killing them as they do you. This is why I think that adding gear levels to FPS games in order to keep players grinding away at them is such a massive mistake by gaming companies, because yes, you may well keep the early adopters invested in your game for longer, but once your game has been established for a week or two you essentially close the doors to a huge proportion of the potential new player population.

When you take these things into consideration, it quickly becomes clear just how good EVE Online’s skill training and ‘ship role’ systems are for allowing players to have disparate levels of ‘gear’ and yet still participate in PvP in a meaningful way.

Today’s post was brought to you by the phrase ‘Oh look, I’ve been two-shot by a magnum having emptied my entire automatic rifle clip into them without any discernible effect’, and the command ‘/quit’.